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Uatu the Watcher: Inside the mysterious Marvel host of What If…?

Uatu the Watcher from What If...?
Uatu the Watcher from What If...? (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Uatu the Watcher is coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as part of Disney Plus' upcoming What If…? animated series, as seen in the just-released What If…? trailer. And if you thought the time-traveling and alternate timelines of Disney Plus' Loki were creative (albeit a bit confusing), What If…? opens the door to multiple timelines- with a new one forming the setting of each episode

But don't worry, Uatu the Watcher will be your guide.

Voiced by Jeffrey Wright, Uatu the Watcher is a member of an alien species called the Watchers who have taken it upon themselves to monitor, record, but never interfere with events as they unfurl across the Marvel Multiverse. In a way they're like the Time Variance Authority, without the incessant need to 'prune' the timeline - the Watchers want to watch it grow naturally.

Uatu the Watcher will debut August 11 as the storyteller/guide to the What If…? animated series, a role he's similarly played in What If…? comic books over the years. He's done more than that - much more, in fact - which we'll get to as we look back into the comic book history of Uatu, and how it may inform his MCU future.

Who is Uatu the Watcher?

Uatu the Watcher

Uatu the Watcher (Image credit: Marvel Comics)

To understand Uatu, you need to understand the Watchers. 

The Watchers are one of the oldest civilizations in Marvel Comics lore - arguably "The First Race" in the universe, if recent comic book revelations are true. Before they were known as the Watchers, this race was one of the first space-faring civilizations - and a delegation led by a Watcher named Ikor tried to 'help' a less-advanced race called the Prosilicans along by sharing its vast knowledge of atomic power with the relatively primitive civilization. 

Things seemingly went well for the Prosilicans at first, but years later when the race-that-would-become-the-Watchers returned they found their friends had decimated their civilization thanks to the nuclear technology they'd learned. The few remaining Prosilicans remembered the Watchers for sharing the gifts which ended up spelling their doom and cast heavy blame at their would-be saviors for giving them technology which they weren't capable of using safely.

Wrecked with the guilt of this information, the entire Watcher civilization changed course - committing itself to act as observers and documentarians of the universe, and never to interfere again. One of the lone voices against this was Ikor's son, Uatu, who tried to argue that their attempts to help others were noble and shouldn't be completely stopped - but those pleas went unheard by the Watcher leadership.

For any Trekkies out there, think of the Watchers' code as a more strict version of Starfleet's Prime Directive - do not interfere with other civilizations. While Starfleet makes exceptions sometimes, the Watchers do not - with immense punishment to any of their kind who violate that oath.

As the Watchers' new status quo took hold, Uatu was assigned to watch after the Sol solar system, and its main planet, Earth. From his base on the blue side of the Moon, Uatu watched Earth's civilization grow - and even watched the formation and growth of alternate reality Earths.

How does Uatu the Watcher fit into Marvel Comics?

Uatu the Watcher

Uatu the Watcher (Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Uatu debuted in 1963's Fantastic Four #13 by Marvel's two principal creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Although Uatu - or the Watcher as he's also known - is best remembered for his association with the Fantastic Four, subsequent stories have spelled out Uatu's involvement - or at least appearance - in Earth history dating back centuries. 

As you'll learn, like the command crew of the starship Enterprise and the Prime Directive, Uatu is prone to break, bend, torque, and sometimes 'reinterpret' (to put it mildly) the Watcher's rule of non-interference. And even when he's not, his simple presence in a story makes the other characters know they're in the middle of a major moment.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Over the years the Watcher shows up in several major FF moments, most notably when the planet-devourer Galactus gets a special hankering for Earth and sends his herald, the Silver Surfer, to scout ahead. Knowing full well what Galactus does - eat planets, and thereby destroying civilizations completely - Uatu breaks his oath in Fantastic Four #48 in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to sour Galactus' taste for Earth. 

Don't worry, the Earth is saved - but Uatu's actions catch the attention of his superiors and he is tried and convicted of breaking the Watchers' oath of noninterference. Things looked dark for Uatu, but he's ultimately released with a proverbial slap on the wrist and re-assumes his place watching over Earth.

Years later, Uatu's nephew Aron shows that the instinct to interfere in alien races runs in the family - but until his uncle, he has malicious intent. The rebellious Watcher becomes a Dennis the Menace on a cosmic scale, doing everything from instigating a fight between the FF and the Inhumans, cloning the FF, and even setting up a pocket universe inside a woman's mind. (Kids, amirite?)

Aron's actions get serious, however, when he masquerades as uncle Uatu in a scheme to have the entire universe swallowed by a black hole, then create a new universe for him to manipulate without other Watchers' interference. Uatu (along with the FF and other allies) eventually stop and depower Aron, but those actions - however altruistic - lead to Earth's Watcher being stripped of his title.

Uatu the Watcher

Uatu the Watcher (Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Despite losing his job, Uatu stayed at his post on Earth's moon and continued to watch and record what happened on our little blue orb. He continued to appear at major events such as in Civil War, Secret Invasion, 'Dark Reign,' and Fear Itself, but held back in interference from his worry that the Watchers may view that as a reason to stop casting a blind eye to his continuous observation of Earth and exile him completely.

It's during this era that Uatu tries to create a life for himself outside his occupation, and engages in a relationship with the fellow Watcher Ulana that results in a child - although the baby Watcher's name has yet to be revealed.

Uatu doesn't get to spend time with his child however, as in the 2014 comic book event Original Sin he is hunted down for his powers by a group of villains that included Doctor Midas, Exterminatrix, and the Orb. Although he survived the attack, the villains' heist made off with not only Uatu's armory of accumulated weapons but also one of his eyes - which possess some of his seer-like abilities.

Uatu the Watcher

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Nick Fury finds Uatu in his weakened state but is flummoxed when the Watcher refuses to reveal his attackers as it would violate his oath of non-interference. In a bizarre ends-justify-the-means action, Fury kills Uatu and takes the Watcher's other eye in an attempt to chase down the villains behind it all. 

Once the other Watchers learn of Fury's actions, they sentence him to a punishment of being chained to the Moon as an all-seeing but never-interfering replacement for Uatu under a new moniker as the Unseen. For a man of action like Nick Fury, this ability to see every crime happening but being unable to prevent, serve justice, or enact revenge is a rough-but-apt punishment for the one-time super-spy.

Uatu and the Watchers remain absent from Marvel Comics for six years, only to see Uatu revived when Fury - still acting as the Unseen - discovers that the villainous alien rate the Cotati of the 2020 event Empyre rose to power using weapons created by the Watchers. This revelation awakens something inside Fury that turns out to be Uatu's spirit, which was instigated from this revelation to revive the fallen Watcher. 

Uatu, with Nick Fury/the Unseen acting as his agent, then commits to an investigation to discover how the Cotati came to have Watcher technology, and if the Watchers - or a rebellious element within the Watchers - is once again empowering civilizations and thereby breaking their code.

How does Uatu the Watcher fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Uatu the Watcher from What If...?

Uatu the Watcher from What If...? (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Although Uatu the Watcher won't debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe until August 11's What If…? premiere, the Watchers themselves made their presence known in the MCU already in a brief but fun scene.

In 2017's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a trio of Watchers is shown on an asteroid, conversing with MCU easter egg lynchpin Stan Lee about his effervescent cameos across Marvel time. Writer/director James Gunn later tweeted the scene was inspired by fan theories which speculated Lee's numerous cameos were due to 'The Man' himself being a Watcher. The scene itself would seem to dispel that notion unless Lee is pulling one over on those Watchers (which would fit Lee's personality as seen in movies, television, and comics).

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

As for Uatu himself, you could consider his debut with What If…? as non-canon as Marvel's other cartoons except for three reasons. This is Marvel Studios' first in-house animated series, they're using as much of the MCU cast of actors as they can, and the story elements of the current Disney Plus Loki series and the idea of divergent timelines running wild could be seen as a set-up for the core conceit of the What If…? series. 

Add to that the caliber of actor Marvel Studios cast for Uatu - Jeffrey Wright - and it seems like there could be a plan - or at least a foregone, thought-out possibility - that Wright could step out from the voice-over booth, put on some togs, and show up in a live-action MCU project down the road.

It wouldn't be the first time - remember, Paul Bettany was hired merely as a voice actor of JARVIS initially, by the actor's own admission. It wasn't until his fifth MCU project, Avengers: Age of Ultron, that he suited up as the Vision.

Depending on how Disney Plus' What If…? goes (and the reception fans have towards Uatu), this could be the beginning, middle, and end of Jeffrey Wright's Watcher in the MCU… or the beginning of something else.

Uatu the Watcher has borne witness to some of the best Marvel stories of all time - shouldn't you, as a reader? 

Chris Arrant

Newsarama Senior Editor Chris Arrant has covered comic book news for Newsarama since 2003, and has also written for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table.